What is Philosophy of Religion?

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Here at PhilosophyOfReligion.org, we have been asking philosophers of religion to say what our field is and does. Our blog is full of fascinating contributions of this kind. We prefer to ask and listen rather than stipulate and define; it’s how we live up to our intention to speak for the entire unruly world of philosophy of religion. Ultimately we hope to analyze the themes in these blog entries and present our findings to you.

So read the blog entries and learn about philosophy of religion from the experts who work in the field.

Wesley J. Wildman is a philosopher of religion working at Boston University, and founder of PhilosophyOfReligion.org.

Donald Blakeley on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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Donald Blakeley

Donald Blakeley is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at California State University, Fresno. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

The question “What is philosophy of religion?” invites reflection on the nature of philosophy as well as religion. I will suppose that philosophy includes analytic concerns (logic, conceptual analysis, functions of language) and constructive (speculative, systematic) concerns (metaphysics, epistemology, value theory). The two have been combined historically, although the speculative part has for some time come under criticism for attempting to deal with matters best handled by scientific disciplines.

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Felix Ó Murchadha on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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Felix Ó Murchadha

Felix Ó Murchadha is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the National University of Ireland, Galway. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Any answer to the question, what is the philosophy of religion, will depend implicitly at least on how philosophy is understood. To me philosophy is the radical questioning of everything, including and especially itself. To practice philosophy is to be uncertain whether one is actually doing philosophy at all. This is a highly paradoxical situation to be in! With respect to religion what this means is that a philosopher does not come with a ready-made tool kit to investigate religion, anymore than she does with respect to art, science or anything else. The philosophical engagement with religion is one which seeks to allow religion to speak to it, in a manner which is challenging and fruitful – but challenging and fruitful to philosophy not to religion. As a philosopher I don’t see myself as having any responsibilities to religious people or communities, neither in the sense of respecting their sensibilities nor in the sense of critically challenging them. So philosophy of religion is in that sense not about religion at all, it is about what if anything religion can tell us or challenge us regarding the practice of philosophy.

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Ilaria Ramelli on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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Ilaria Ramelli

Ilaria L.E. Ramelli is Professor of Philosophy at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, Italy. We invited her to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Philosophy of Religion is the branch of Philosophy that investigates Religion, and religions, philosophically. Thus, it is a philosophical discipline—the philosophical discipline that comes closest to theology (albeit rigorously from within Philosophy), after Philosophy and Theology have become two distinct sciences, with different methodologies and objects, in our post-Kantian philosophical culture. In antiquity and late antiquity, however, the two were not distinct: theology itself was a philosophical discipline, arguably the highest part of philosophy, the peak. The study of divinity was the culmination of philosophy.

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Nicholas Rescher on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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Nicholas Rescher

Nicholas Rescher is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

The philosophy of religion is a domain of intimidating magnitude. The whole of the space available for the present discussion could be filled with questions belonging to the field. What is a religion? What sorts of religions are possible? What is it to have or to belong to a religion? Why it is that people should (or perhaps even need) to belong to a religion? Is having a religion a matter purely of accepting beliefs or are behavioral ramifications (such as prayer or ritual) necessary? Can the existence of God be demonstrable?—And if not, can belief in God possibly be validated by other, non-demonstrative means? The list goes on and on.

Being a religious person is no prerequisite for a philosopher of religion. There are a great many theoretical issues regarding religious matters about which an atheist can ably deliberate. (One interesting example is the hypothetical question: “What sort of God, if any, would a reasonable person want to have if they could have their own way in the matter—and just why this particular sort?”) Nor, contrawise, need a committed believer necessarily engage with philosophical issues arising in this sphere. (Rustic faith is nowise illegitimate.) With religion as with other human enterprises, the relationship between the venture itself and its philosophical ramifications can be complex. Even—and indeed especially—atheism occupies a place in the spectrum of alternative philosophy-of-religion positions.

But why take a stance one way or the other on religious issues? Continue reading

Leigh Vicens on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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Leigh Vicens

Leigh Vicens is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Augustana College. We invited her to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Since I teach philosophy within a religion department at a Lutheran college, where many students study Christian theology as well as world religions before taking my class in philosophy of religion, I find it helpful to begin the semester by discussing how what we will be doing together in that class differs from what they may have done in other classes before.

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David McNaughton on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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David McNaughton

David McNaughton is Professor of Philosophy at Florida State University. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Is there such a subject as philosophy of religion? The answer to this question is not as obvious as it might seem. I am not, of course, claiming that there is something improper about claiming expertise in this area on your CV. What I question is whether the very disparate practices, attitudes, and beliefs that come under the heading of ‘religion’ have sufficient coherence to count as a unified topic for enquiry of any kind, whether philosophical, sociological, psychological, historical, or some mixture thereof. If I am right then, though there are many interesting specific questions that can be raised within the field traditionally called philosophy of religion, there is no topic or question common to all these enquiries in this area because the notion of religion itself lacks any unifying theme.

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Jack Mulder on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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Jack Mulder

Jack Mulder is Professor of Philosophy at Hope College. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Philosophy of Religion is a fascinating area in the study of philosophy. Part of the reason it is so interesting is that it can encompass philosophy theology, philosophical a-theology, and philosophical inquiry into the meaningfulness of those very categories. Let me try to explain.

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Adam Barkman on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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Adam Barkman

Adam Barkman is Chair of Philosophy at Redeemer College, Canada. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

The philosophy of religion is the project of thinking hard about key themes in “religion,” such as divine revelation, the soul and God. Fine; but who says this project can’t also do more? —The philosophy of religion textbook, written by profs like you and me? When I teach or talk on this subject, I’m always crossing the boundary into what some would like to restrict to theology and even science.

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Mark Gardiner on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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Mark Gardiner

Mark Gardiner is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Mount Royal University, Canada. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Philosophy of religion is whatever philosophers of religion think that it is. Trite, yes, but this way of putting the emphasis on the practice of certain philosophers rather than on what those practices are supposed to be about allows for more nuance in the question. In particular, it gives rise to host of questions, such as:

  • descriptive: What it is that philosophers of religion, in fact, do?
  • historical: What is it that philosophers of religion at particular past times have done?
  • cultural: What is it that philosophers of religion in particular cultural settings are doing?
  • imaginative: What it is that philosophers of religion might, in the future, do?
  • normative: What it is that philosophers of religion ought (or ought not) to do?

These questions are, of course, thoroughly intertwined. Answers to the normative question may both serve to critique answers to the descriptive question as well as delimit a range of answers to the imaginative one. There is, for instance, a nascent movement which is critical of what is often described as ‘traditional’ philosophy of religion and which advocates a re-shaping of the field; indeed, the call to this movement is reflected in many of the blog entries on this website. Some have claimed that ‘traditional’ philosophy of religion is really just a form of theology—and that theology has no place in a properly constituted philosophy of religion. Others have argued, in a not dissimilar fashion, that philosophy’s ‘traditional’ emphasis on first-order truth questions unwarrantedly privileges conceptions of the object of study along the lines of abstract metaphysical systems, canons of beliefs, world-views, or purported representations of reality. Many religious adherents, it is often pointed out, just don’t understand their religion along these lines. Just as postmodernists critiqued the scientific realists during the science wars as having a conception of science which had lost touch with what it is that scientists actually do or have done, this movement calls for the object of the philosophy of religion to be actual religions and religious phenomena rather than some imagined type of Religion Itself or religious noumena.

I am sympathetic to this call, though am a bit leery of seeing it as an attempt to purify Philosophy of Religion. Continue reading

Kevin Schilbrack on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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Kevin Schilbrack

Kevin Schilbrack is Chair of Religion and Philosophy at Appalachian State University. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

The questions one typically finds in textbooks on philosophy of religion are whether faith in God can be rational, whether the attributes traditionally ascribed to God are reasonable, whether the evil in the world undermines the credibility of belief in an all-powerful and perfectly loving God, and whether religious experiences are evidence for the reality of God. Sometimes one also finds alternative conceptions of God, like open theism or process theism, and increasingly one finds the question of how theists should think about the possibility of truth and salvation in other religious traditions. I find this range of questions fascinating, but needlessly limited to the topic of God. I judge that as the world shrinks due to technology and migration, a broader set of questions emerges for philosophers thinking about religion. I therefore want to lay out a proposal for the emerging sets of questions that philosophy of religion ought to take as its task. There are, I think, three such sets.

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